Opinion | Getting food safety assessment right

Cor Groenveld, Global Head of Food Supply Chain Services at LRQA, explains how better assessments and an increase in auditor competency led to improvement of Food Safety in the food supply chain

Contrary to the impression that media coverage of food safety issues leaves us with, the food we eat today is at one of its safest points in history. This is an incredible feat, especially when you take into account the complexities of what is truly a global food supply chain, with raw materials being grown on one continent, processed on another, packaged on yet another and then shipped all over the world.

The ability of large, multinational food organisations to successfully manage the globalisation of the food supply chain, while minimising risks, are largely influenced by two key developments; the harmonisation of global food safety standards and improvements in auditor competencies.

Harmonisation of standards

After numerous food safety scares, an influential group of retailers and manufacturers joined forces, known as the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), in an attempt to harmonise standards, increase transparency across the supply chain and share best practice. It was their key understanding that food safety is non-competitive which caused a shift in philosophy towards a sharing of systems, knowledge and processes.

Through their Technical Working Groups, the GFSI have been instrumental in reducing what was previously hundreds of regional, industry and even company specific schemes, to 12 manageable, approved standards. For most of the world, this has driven continual improvement, mitigated risks, led to increased efficiencies across the supply chain and helped suppliers reduce costs.

GFSI also recognised that a successful food safety culture can’t just be forced through the supply chain by large multinationals, but has to be worked on with a top-down and bottom–up approach, targeted also at small suppliers and less-developed countries. The GFSI’s Global Markets Programme gives those suppliers a two year window to gain an understanding and implement one of the 12 approved standards and schemes. During those years, the large global organisations work together with a certification or training services provider and engage with smaller suppliers to help them successfully implement the approved scheme, as well as the food safety culture that supports it.

Better auditors, better assessments

A firm commitment to a common set of standards, systems and processes allowed the food supply chain to benchmark and compare the manner in which organisations manage their risks. This started the shift in focus towards auditors conducting the assessments and the methodologies that were being applied.

Only by employing assessors with sector-specific expertise, relevant experience and high level auditing skills could the assessment and certification process then truly add value to the global food supply chain. As more organisations began to understand the benefits of third-party certification, the demand for it increased substantially, and to meet this demand, certification bodies needed more auditors.

It’s also important that an auditor ensures that he looks in depth at the corporate objectives and strategies and understands the vision of the company. From there, he needs to find out what the risks are and focus on these through a risk-based approach, which is the only way for an auditor to do an effective audit in the relative, short time available. Essentially, an effective auditor should also be able to speak the language of the shop floor as well as that of the boardroom.

It’s also vital that the certification process is linked to driving improvement. Auditors must be able to challenge and support an organisation by doing a robust and in-depth assessment and when any deviations against the standard of risks for food safety are found, a non-conformity should be raised. Finally, the calibration of auditors has to ensure the same level of assessment across international boundaries. Calibration assures global organisations that their assessments have been delivered in the same, robust way and that their operations are conforming to the relevant standard. 

The assessment

For a long time the industry largely followed the ‘snapshot in time’ approach, whereby the company being assessed prepared for the visit by making sure that everything was right on that day, so the list could be checked off and a certificate issued. However, a more effective, process-based, management systems approach was being delivered by skilled auditors and certification bodies, but not yet formalised through the standards and schemes they were assessing against. This led to a wide variance in the way assessments were being carried out, even within the same client and certification body.

The introduction of ISO 22000, the first global food safety management system standard in 2004 began a slow change in approach, with the launch of the FSSC 22000 certification scheme in 2008, which incorporated sector specific food safety prerequisite programme requirements. FSSC 22000 is one of GFSI’s recognised certification schemes.

FSSC 22000 has been the right tool for a process and system audit approach, and has changed the system so that it’s not how a factory looks on the day that determines if a food safety certificate hangs on the wall. Now, an in-depth look at the underpinning systems and processes by a qualified, calibrated auditor is helping organisations of all sizes manage their food safety risks.

The future

At LRQA, we believe that a robust assessment approach should look at an organisation’s integrated management system and processes, and embed continual improvement as a fundamental component. It should also feature a risk-based methodology which helps mitigate risks and drive food safety and sustainability across the global food supply chain.

We’ve proactively worked with food supply chain stakeholders, including manufacturers, retailers, suppliers and industry experts, to move the food sector away from a checklist-based approach to auditing and towards a process-based, management systems approach. What is clear is that organisations across the food supply chain are now increasingly recognising the benefits of independent assessment and certification, not only in terms of the cost savings, but in terms of the benefits and value it brings.

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